Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi had a price on his head.
The US had offered a staggering reward of US$5 million (£3.6m) for information on the notorious West African ISIS leader after an ambush in Niger in 2017 killed four American soldiers as well as four Niger service personnel.
And he probably didn’t even know it was coming, when he was blown to bits by a drone strike while riding his motorbike in mid-August, as he was tracked by French counter-terrorism forces in northern Mali.
French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that Sahraoui, who also used the name Lehbib Ould, was finally dead, the UK’s Daily Mail reported.
Macron wrote in a tweet: “Adnan Abou Walid al Sahraoui, leader of the terrorist group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara was neutralized by French forces.
“This is another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel,” he said, referring to a vast area of mainly desert land in Africa where groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda operate.
On August 9, 2020, the terrorist had personally ordered the brutal killing of six French charity workers and their Nigerian guide and driver, four men and four women aged between 25 to 50, who were on a day trip visiting a giraffe reserve.
Sahrawi, believed to be 48, was the head of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), a jihadist group that broke away from other militants in Mali in 2015 when it pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Since then, ISGS militants have spread into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, carried out hundreds of deadly attacks on civilians and armed forces, and rendered large areas of West Africa’s arid Sahel region ungovernable.
“The death of Sahrawi is a decisive blow to ISGS and its cohesion,” French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told reporters.
The operation took place between August 17 and 22, 2021, Parly said.
Intelligence gleaned from the capture of ISGS fighters earlier this year allowed France to hone in on specific areas where Sahrawi was likely to hide.
He was on a motorcycle with one other person when they were hit by a drone strike in the Dangalous Forest near the Niger border, one of several airstrikes in the region in mid-August, said the chief of staff of France’s military, Thierry Burkhard.
France then sent a team of 20 special ground forces to the region to verify the identities of those hit, and determined that about 10 ISGS members were killed, including Sahrawi.
Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Centre for the New South, a Moroccan think tank, called it a “huge blow for ISGS” but added, “there will be someone who’s ready to take over. The real success is when (the) civilian population is no longer terrorized by this group and others.”
France estimates the group is responsible for the deaths of 2,000-3,000 people, mostly Muslims, and that it still has hundreds of fighters, although Parly said its leadership was now less international and more from the local Fulani tribe.
President Macron also thanked the “heroes who died for France” in his Twitter post, remembering the bereaved families, saying that “their sacrifice is not in vain.”
The US State Department designated ISIS-GS as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2018, and announced in 2019 a US$5 million reward for information leading to the capture of Sahraoui.
It followed an ISIS attack in Niger in October 2017 which led to the deaths of Army Sgt David Johnson, 25; Staff Sgt Bryan Black, 35; Staff Sgt Jeremiah Johnson, 39; and Staff Sgt Dustin Wright, 29.
Four Nigerian troops were also killed in the attack, and two American soldiers and eight Nigerian soldiers were severely wounded.
Sahrawi started his adult life fighting a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces in the western Sahara, before joining various jihadi groups that merged with ISIS, The Mirror reported.
He was said to have been lightly wounded in a fire fight with al-Qaeda loyalists a year later, but continued to lead operations, mainly against government forces seen as being pro-west.
Sahrawi, who was married, came close to being killed by the French in February 2018, near to Méneka, in Mali, but “escaped on foot in the middle of the night with some of his men,” according to intelligence sources in Paris.
Paris has started reshaping its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission to include more European partners and earlier this month began redeploying from bases in northern Mali.
The strike on Sahrawi, which comes just two months after the death of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Nigeria’s Boko Haram, follows other hits on ISGS’s senior ranks.
Yet the group remains dangerous and has carried out a series of deadly attacks on civilians, especially in Niger, where casualties have risen sharply this year.
Bernard Emie, head of France’s external intelligence service, told reporters there would now be increased focus on neutralizing Iyad Ag Ghaly, the head of al-Qaeda’s north African wing, whose group has carried out sporadic operations around the Ivory Coast and Senegalese border regions.
Sources: The Daily Mail, The Mirror, CNN News, CTV News, The Washington Post